Tests Yield ‘Stew of Contamination’

Critics accuse the D.E.C. of ‘years of regulatory neglect’ at Sand Land mine
Stuart Z. Cohen of Environmental Consultants spoke on Friday about the results of water tests conducted at the Sand Land mine in Noyac. Hilary Thayer Hamann

Water samples obtained from 10 test wells drilled by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services around the Sand Land mine, on the border between Bridgehampton and Noyac, indicate the presence of abnormally high concentrations of nitrate, manganese, and cobalt in the aquifer below the mine, and lead, arsenic, and manganese in the surface water. 

A private testing firm analyzed the test results and discussed them at a meeting on Friday in Noyac.

Each of the contaminants poses potential health risks. For example, charts displayed at the meeting showed that levels of manganese, an essential nutrient under normal circumstances, spiked above 5,000 parts per billion in the aquifer and 730 p.p.b. in the surface water, when the “maximum allowable level” in drinking water as defined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is 300 p.p.b. 

“Elevated manganese exposure over a long time could harm the nervous system,” the D.E.C. states on its website. “Infants and children up to 1 year old should not be given water containing manganese over” that amount.

The test results were presented to a roomful of concerned citizens and members of the press who gathered at the Old Noyac Schoolhouse on Friday for a public meeting hosted by the Noyac Civic Council. Among those speaking were Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and Stuart Z. Cohen of Environmental and Turf Services of Wheaton, Md.

The Sand Land mine is estimated to span between 30 and 50 acres off Millstone Road and to run as deep as 60 to 70 feet below the original grade. It is owned by the Sand Land Corporation, also known as Wainscott Sand and Gravel, which has been using the site for composting and mulching since running out of sand to mine decades ago. That secondary, unpermitted use has been the focus of litigation for several years.

In 2013, Sand Land was granted a permit to continue operating under New York State’s Mined Lands Reclamation Act. That permit, which is set to expire this year, does not allow for solid-waste management operations. 

“We argued that there should be no permit extension until they figure out the potential environmental risk of mulching operations, which is the type of business Sand Land is actually conducting,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The D.E.C. granted the permit anyway.”

In 2015, lawyers for Sand Land began to seek permission to expand the mining operation by 4.9 acres and to excavate 40 feet deeper than authorized under the 2013 Mined Lands permit. That expansion was not granted, but is currently the subject of legal challenges.

In 2016, the State Supreme Court Appellate Division upheld a 2012 decision by the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals ruling that Sand Land was not permitted to conduct waste processing at the site. The 2016 decision as challenged by attorneys for Sand Land, and was overturned by a State Supreme Court justice.

Sand Land Corporation is represented by Brian Matthews of Matthews, Kirst & Cooley of East Hampton. Mr. Matthews did not return a call for comment.

Mr. Cohen, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is a nationally certified “groundwater professional,” analyzed the raw data collected from the wells and attributed the contamination to above-ground dumping of waste into the mine and to the mobilization of naturally present subsurface heavy metals that are released as a consequence of contaminated flow-through.

“There are no manifests,” Mr. Cohen said. “We don’t know what’s being delivered there. Nobody is tracking this.” 

When asked how other communities around the country deal with this kind of problem, Mr. Cohen said, “I have never been involved in a case like this. It’s unusual for the local government to turn a blind eye.” He added as an aside that he had worked with the environmental activist Erin Brockovich, whose fight against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for groundwater contamination in residential areas was the subject of a 2000 film starring Julia Roberts.

“Everybody understands the value of this particular geographic space to our drinking water,” Mr. DeLuca told the crowd on Friday. “For 30 years, every level of government has worked to make this part of our town a special groundwater protection area under state law, a critical environmental area under county law, and an aquifer protection overlay district under town law.”

He said the state D.E.C. was made aware of the improper use of the site for composting and mulching and of the environmental risks involved in large-scale mulching projects.

“They were told that underneath these types of operations we have the mobilization of heavy metals, radioactive activity, in some cases pesticides. We are liberating toxins we don’t want to have in our drinking water,” Mr. DeLuca said. 

The test results released last week are being compared to documented evidence of groundwater and surface water contamination discovered in the Horseblock Road area of Yaphank that have been traced back to vegetative waste mulching and composting operations run by Long Island Compost/Great Gardens.

“When Sand Land wanted to expand, Bob and I reported to the D.E.C.,” Ms. Esposito said. “We told them we saw mulch being dumped in the middle of Sand Land with our own eyes. They didn’t believe us.” 

Referring to the charts and diagrams surrounding her and her fellow panelists, which illustrated the abnormally high levels of toxins found in the test wells, she added, “Apparently we have good eyesight.”

“We were ignored,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Over and over again. Those arguments were made in writing and made in person. They did nothing. The frustrating thing is that the contamination has been there while we’ve spent years trying to get at the data.”

The panelists called for the state to step in to determine the extent of the contamination, get rid of the material causing the pollution, and prevent the Sand Land operation from continuing.

“What we have is a first look,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The Suffolk County Health Department went in and popped in 10 wells. The wells are telling us there is contamination. It’s a framework. Now we need a formal site characterization: Has the contamination migrated off-site? How far? What is the remediation plan?”

He added, “The agency that is responsible and that needs to be held accountable is the State of New York, which knew for close to a decade that this was a risk and did nothing about it. The state cannot continue to say that a mining operation that has a pile of compost as high as this room is somehow in the process of reclaiming the facility, and that therefore this is not a problem. It is a problem. At the end of the day it is a reservoir, not a landfill, and we have to start treating it that way.”

A staff member from the office of Representative Lee Zeldin was in attendance at last Friday’s meeting. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. was not at the meeting, but in a press release that day said, “For more than five years I have expressed my concerns to government regulators at all levels about the environmental threat presented by the various industrial operations being undertaken by Sand Land at its Noyac location.”

He faulted the D.E.C. for turning “a blind eye to these community concerns. Years of regulatory neglect have yielded a stew of contamination that would more likely be associated with an open dump than a legitimate business.”

“Assemblyman Thiele has been very supportive,” said Mr. DeLuca. “But if this issue is going to be fixed the governor’s office is going to have to get behind it. It’s to the D.E.C.’s and Governor Cuomo’s advantage to get ahead of this thing.”

A second meeting on the water data that was to have been held on Tuesday, also at the Old Noyac Schoolhouse, was canceled due to the snowstorm.